Venezuela’s oil czar resigns amid corruption investigations

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s oil czar announced his resignation on Monday as officials investigate alleged corruption by civil servants in the state oil industry and elsewhere in the government.

Tareck El Aissami announced his resignation on Twitter and promised to help investigate allegations related to Petroleos de Venezuela SA, commonly known as PDVSA, while also lending support to President Nicolás Maduro’s anti-corruption campaign.

“…I am putting myself at the disposal of the (ruling party) leadership to support this crusade undertaken by President @NicolasMaduro against counter-values ​​that we must fight with our lives,” El Aissami said. wrote.

Venezuela’s National Anti-Corruption Police last week announced an investigation into unidentified public officials in the oil industry, the judiciary and some municipalities, although PDVSA was not named.

Corruption has long been rampant in Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves. But officials are rarely held accountable — a major irritant to citizens, most of whom live on $1.90 a day, the international measure of extreme poverty.

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Maduro acknowledged El Aissami’s decision in a televised address to a gathering of ruling party leaders. He said he was accepting his resignation “to facilitate all investigations that should lead to the establishment of the truth, the punishment of the perpetrators and the administration of justice in these cases.”

El Aissami, a strong ally of Maduro, was named a drug kingpin in 2017 by the US government for his activities as interior minister and governor. The Treasury Department claimed that it “repeatedly controlled or partially possessed more than 1,000 kilograms of narcotics shipments from Venezuela, including those destined for Mexico and the United States.”

During the administration of the late President Hugo Chávez, El Aissami headed the Ministry of the Interior. He was appointed Minister of Oil in April 2020.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said in a radio interview Monday that at least half a dozen officials, including those linked to PDVSA, had been arrested and that he expected more to be detained.

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“I assure you, even more so at this moment when the country demands not only justice but also the strengthening of institutions, we will use the full weight of the law against these individuals,” Saab said.

Oil is Venezuela’s most important industry. A windfall of hundreds of billions of oil dollars thanks to record high world prices allowed Chávez to launch a number of initiatives, including public food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs.

But the subsequent drop in prices and government mismanagement—first under Chávez and then under Maduro—put an end to the lavish spending. Thus began a complex crisis that has pushed millions into poverty and forced more than 7 million Venezuelans to migrate.

PDVSA’s mismanagement and recent U.S. economic sanctions have caused a steady decline in production, from 3.5 million barrels a day when Chávez took power in 1999 to roughly 700,000 barrels a day last year.

The US government recently eased some sanctions and allowed oil giant Chevron to restart production for the first time in more than three years. Maduro’s government has been negotiating with his US-backed political opponents primarily to lift sanctions.

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US congressional investigators saw El Aissami as an obstacle to Maduro’s goals.

“If Al Aissami remains in this position, it could complicate efforts to lift oil sanctions,” the Congressional Research Center said in a November report.

In September, Maduro’s government renewed accusations of wrongdoing against former oil minister Rafael Ramírez, alleging that he was involved in a multibillion-dollar embezzlement operation in the early 2010s that took advantage of the dual currency exchange system. Ramírez, who oversaw the OPEC nation’s oil industry for a decade, denied the allegations.

In 2016, Venezuela’s then-opposition-led National Assembly said $11 billion had disappeared from PDVSA between 2004 and 2014, when Ramirez ran the company. In 2015, the US Treasury Department accused an Andorran bank of laundering some $2 billion stolen from PDVSA.